Giving Back as a Startup: The Seed CX Transit Pilot Project

Last summer, I was enjoying a poke bowl at the French Market for lunch when a gentleman approached me and asked if I could give him money for a transit ticket. He told me that he had a job interview that afternoon, but didn’t have the fare to get there. I had just spent a rather absurd amount of money on my lunch and felt a wave of being incredibly fortunate, so I agreed. I went to the ATM by the Union Station ticket office, withdrew some cash, and handed it over to allow him to purchase a monthly pass.

That might have been the end of the story, except that, by pure chance, I ran into the same gentleman at the same place a few weeks later — and he told me that he’d got the job. He also told me that it was something of a coup for him — he wasn’t always able to make it to interviews, as the round-trip fare is almost $5.00, which isn’t an amount he can always spare.

Charitable Giving the Startup Way

This got me thinking: if the impact of this chance encounter worked out for him, who else might it help?

As a startup founder, my goal is to try to solve problems in new ways. When I saw the impact one transit card had on a stranger’s life, I naturally wondered whether other people might have the same experience — and how setting up a larger-scale program that delivered transit cards might help. So I did some research.

No programs around unemployed transportation existed in Chicago. I therefore reached out to a handful of Chicago charities to see whether they were interested in working with me to test a transit card program for job seekers with limited resources.

That outreach led me to meet a board member from Inner Voice, a Chicago nonprofit that offers a continuum of care and focuses on providing individualized services for people experiencing homelessness. I began to learn more about the calculus that unemployed people are forced to make: food vs. traveling for an job interview that statistically they are unlikely to secure.

I worked with Inner Voice to set up a pilot program that would test whether the one-off experience I’d had with the man I met by chance could be replicated across a larger cohort.

The Results: 77% Increase in Gainful Employment

We worked with another Chicago nonprofit, Teamwork Englewood, that agreed to track its members’ ability to secure gainful employment without offering transit cards to create a kind of “control” group. What we found was that, without transit assistance, just 47 percent of job seekers (24 out of 51) were employed two weeks after a job event.

Meanwhile, we conducted a pilot program (the Seed Transit Pilot Project) that followed 113 job seekers. Of them, 94 (83 percent) secured gainful employment. In other words, our efforts removed the transportation barrier, offering participants the access and motivation they needed to take the first steps toward seeking employment.

Because of the success of the Seed Transit Pilot Program, we’ve decided to launch a full program next year. We are looking forward to letting Seed CX employees participate by donating money (which we will match) and hopefully securing the support of other partners.

When & Why Startups Should Start “Giving Back”

Startups have a lot going on. Running a startup is an exercise of being comfortable in being uncomfortable. But I encourage every founder to think seriously about how they’re giving back to their community. Why? Because if you start giving early — even if it’s no more more than a few hours of time — that effort becomes part of your company’s culture. If you wait, on the other hand, it’s much harder to fit it in. Any charitable programs you launch may end up feeling tacked-on or forced, part of a more corporate take on social responsibility.

At Seed CX, we continue to solidify our culture of giving back this holiday season by supporting causes important to the Chicagoland community. We’ll be working with two local organizations chosen by our team.

First, we’re participating in Letters to Santa, a program run by Direct Effect Charities. The program involves having children from Chicago’s neediest communities write letters to Santa Claus asking for what they want for Christmas. Those wishes are then fulfilled by sponsors such as Seed CX. Once all of the gifts are purchased, we plan to have a company-wide wrapping party prior to dropping the gifts off for Santa to pass out.

We are also kicking off the new year with a volunteer day with Cradles to Crayons, which serves 33,000 children annually at its Giving Factory. At the Giving Factory, Seed CX employees will sort and inspect donated items and package them for delivery to the children who need them.

And giving back isn’t just about helping the community or building some nebulous force like “culture” — it can also be a powerful recruitment tool. The labor market is as tight as it’s been in more than a decade. People — not just millennials — want to work for a company that is “more than just a job.”

For me, there’s also a simpler calculation: I’m fortunate enough to be able to give my time and some money, so I do. I don’t think anyone should have to hope for a fluke of circumstance or make a tradeoff right on the breadline to get a job they want and are qualified to do.

Of course, it’s impossible to tell beforehand whether an innovative solution to a problem will work — but that’s the nature of running a startup. By bringing our experience of solving familiar problems in new ways, entrepreneurs can have a significant impact on the communities we’re part of.